Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Come and Play

Margaret Elysia Garcia


That spring, I felt the whole earth try to throw itself. I woke up, holding tightly to my patchwork stuffed horse, Patches, as I fell off the top bunk. My Siamese cat, Brownie, circled and howled, then scurried to the far corner under the bed and couldn't be coaxed out.

“It’s just an earthquake,” Mama said, trying to calm me.

I remained huddled in my Holly Hobbie sleeping bag on the floor.

"Sometimes nature needs to move quickly and loudly. It’s okay. We're all still here.. It’s over.” She pet my hair for hours, there on the floor. I stared at the stars and the moons on my wall. They hadn’t moved. I stared under the bed at Brownie whose eyes remained wide. His ears were flat against the top of his head. I wanted to pet Brownie and let him know that Mama said once a big movement like that happens, another bad scary thing like that won't come for a long, long time—but he hissed at me and tried to bite at me.

 “Mama, if he’s still under there tomorrow can I build a Golden Book bridge under the bed and have him walk across it so he's safe?” I asked.

“He’ll be out in a few hours. Animals sense when things are happening in nature. He’s just a little spooked. He’ll come out soon,” her Mama reassured.

Brownie reappeared during Captain Kangaroo; he leapt onto the TV and his toast colored tail hung down the middle of the screen. Mama didn’t like me watching too much TV, but that was one of three things I could watch.

"Only white trash and bad Mexicans spend so much time watching the idiot box," she declared. While watching TV, I usually played with books or colored on butcher-block paper. I wasn’t just sitting there. When Mama watched she folded the laundry.

“The blue hum will make you retarded,” Mama often warned as she turned the TV off after Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood or Sesame Street. "No more than one hour a day," she'd remind. I  wanted to be retarded like the other kids in the apartment complex whose TVs went on like light switches in their houses all day and evening long. I wanted to play in the stairwell barefoot or chase after the ice cream truck “like retarded dogs,” Mama proclaimed. But. I spent most of my days carrying Brownie like a rag doll and building book bridges across the thick shag carpet while my mother endlessly cleaned the house with her big rubber gloves and a bucket of PineSol.  The kitchen floor was perfect. The bathroom was perfect. She even scrubbed the walls. When Mama finished the chores, we’d would go to the park and sit by ourselves, side by side on the swings. My feet would kick the air while Mama's feet would drag against the park sand. Three days a week Mama dropped me off at my grandparent's house and went to the junior college on the hillside with a denim binder and a thick book in her hands.

"Your Mama is going to be a lawyer someday," Mama told me as she kissed me goodbye, ‘You’d better be good.”
I spend the afternoons reciting to Grandma all the words I learned in Spanish on Sesame Street:

" Abrieto. Cerrado. Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis, seite, ocho, nueve. Agua,," I would shout,  but Grandma would shake her head.

"That's good, m'ija," she’d say.

"You sound like a gavacha," Grandpa would say only half joking, as he walked through the kitchen and checked the stew pot on the stove.

"What does that mean?" I asked. Grandpa rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as he stirred more chiles into the stew pot.

"It means white girl, m'ija, don’t pay attention to your silly abuel—grandpa," Grandma said, hugging my shoulders and moving behind me. "Do you want a snack?"

I looked down at my knees and wondered what a white girl was exactly. Was it a stick drawing of a girl in crayon with a big circle for a head on white paper that no one’s bothered to color?  Did he mean like the girls I saw on TV?  The ones who always had dogs and playrooms with Barbie townhouses? I snacked on Nilla wafers and apple slices and stayed quiet.

Always on these visits, Grandma would take me to the bedroom and put me down for a nap on the wide blue bedspread. The bed was wide like a field. I would drift to sleep in the warm house as Grandma turned on the telenovelas and lay there beside me, while flipping through her National Enquirer and murmuring about which movie star had just had a facelift.
After naptime, I would slide.  Grandma’s house had trails of plastic on the floor wherever there was carpet.  I glided on the plastic across the room in my white socks as if ice-skating. I wasn’t suppose to run or slide or do anything that would make Grandma or Grandpa come running into the room to scold me for playing inside the house, but sometimes Grandpa leaned in the doorway and said, “It’s okay, you can slide, mi’ja, your abuelita went to the market. The women in this family need to relax and have fun once in awhile. Aye.”

One afternoon, when Mama came to pick me up, she brought a friend I had never seen before. He waited in the car and did not meet Grandma or Grandpa. He had blue marble eyes and his face was pink and his hair was the color of Big Bird.  My grandparents said something to Mama in Spanish and she told them in English that her life was her life.
Mama and the friend took me for ice cream before dinnertime and I didn't know what to order for fear they would call me ‘a retarded dog.’ Mama ordered a root beer float with vanilla ice cream for me.  I stared at Mama sharing a banana split with this friend. She didn’t seem like my Mama at all. She made a lot of jokes and laughed at all of them too.  He was all smiles and told us he had a shoebox full of E tickets for Disneyland rides. He’d use them on us. Mama was smiling and it made me want to cry and I don’t know why. There was no reason to cry or scream or make a fuss ever unless you saw blood. That was Mama’s rule. I had never seen Mama’s face shine like this before. Never. I stared at this man with Big Bird hair and was careful not to make slurp sounds.

Brownie circled the living room and wailed and then ran under the bed. These days Mama was smiling a lot and slipping up on the rules. She let me pick out an iron-on pale blue t-shirt at the thrift store that was covered in glitter and dolphins and had a stain on it. She let me play on the front step with my Golden Books. The stairwell kids came up to inspect me a few times. One older boy tossed one of my books like a Frisbee and a little girl with sticky hands tried to eat the scratch and sniff Christmas book so I took them back.

"Don't you have any games in there?"  asked one kid.

"Do you have Candyland?" asked another.

"I don't have Candyland." Mama said it promoted bad eating habits and tooth decay. "I have Chutes and Ladders," I offered. I ran back in the house to get Chutes and Ladders.

When I bolted into the apartment, I saw Mama's friend sitting on the couch in the living room without his shirt on. Gobs of blonde hair everywhere, covering him like a shirt. It made me ill.  I thought about all the hair he had; maybe he was part ape or gorilla. He was grinning like a Muppet.  The TV was on louder than Mama ever let me turn it. Mama was in the kitchen buttoning up her blouse.
“I, Billy is going to move in with us,” her Mama said over her shoulder, “he’s bringing his stuff over this weekend. Won’t that be exciting?”
“The kids want to play Chutes and Ladders,” I called after Mama, bracing for the news that I couldn't bring the game outside. Billy reached under the coffee table and pulled out the game but did not get off the couch or move towards me except to hold the game out with one hand.  Mama didn’t try to stop anything.
“Here it is, kiddo,” he said. I put one Golden Book in front of the other and made a path to Billy.
“That’s gonna take forever, kiddo, just come over here and get the game,” he said looking down the hall towards Mama. “Come on, Slowpoke, your Mama and I need to talk and you need to go outside.” I placed the books on the dark orange shag but I could not do it any faster or else they wouldn't come out in a straight line. They started to land diagonal. When I put my foot on the face of the Gingerbread Man I fell right on my tailbone.

“You sure are a klutzy thing aren’t you?” Billy asked standing up. He walked over to me and helped pick up the books and stacked them neatly on top of the orange crate bookcase by the door. “Books are for reading, kiddo, now go play,” he said holding my chin in his hand for a moment, looking straight into my little brown eyes, the color of mud. Then he placed his hand on my head and gave me a little push to get towards the door. I turned back for my books but he shut the door.

I played with the other kids until the gnats started circling our faces and going up our noses and everyone’s papa but mine came home in old Chevy trucks with fruit and beer tucked under their arms. One retarded boy showed me how to run for the ice cream truck and his mama bought me my first Popsicle which left my tongue and lips a sickly, TV blue. I wanted to go home with them.

Billy sat on the couch more and more when I came home from preschool or my grandparents' house.  He had a bald spot like Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street. The bald spot was eye level with me whenever Billy lay on the couch with his head leaning back on one end and his feet dangling down either side. Mama’s face was returning to normal. There was less smiling and less ice cream. My bare feet had calluses now. I was welcomed over at the other kids apartments though no one ever went to mine. I was no longer allowed to build bridges with books unless it was in my bedroom because it freaked Billy out. “Books aren’t toys!” he’d said more than a few times. Brownie was no longer allowed to sleep on top of the TV with his tail hanging down like an anchor. Billy shot water at him whenever he got close.  The TV was always on when he was home. I had seen Hawaii Five-O and Match Game and Kojak and the Rockford Files. I knew about car chases and how grown-ups become detectives when they get old. A year passed.
I began to whine when Mama put me to bed. I wanted to stay up until at least the hour when the kitty cat meowed at the end of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Mama got firm about the rules again. She asked Billy to curtail the TV watching down to three hours a day. I squeezed Brownie just a little bit to try and get the same sound as the kitty cat at the end of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
One night I heard Billy and Mama arguing about the TV being on all the time. I heard Billy yell about plenty of women who’d be happy to have him something something. Mama yelling that she couldn't hear herself think.  She couldn’t study anymore. The apartment didn’t feel like it was hers. He said he never saw the point in her going to school, anyway. Something got thrown and hit the wall. Another thing crashed into the wall and broke.  I got that pit-in-the-stomach-stay-right-where-you-are and don’t let them know you’re alive feeling. And then a big thud and then a broken glass sound. The neighbor's dog howled and set off the other dogs in the other apartments. I grabbed my sleeping bag out from under the bed and put it in the corner furthest away from the door of my room and climbed in with only my nose showing as a breathing hole.  I tried to coax Brownie to get in, but he curled up on the top bunk and looked down at me.  I curled up in a ball trying to take up as little room as possible and I waited.

The next morning I was still in my Holly Hobbie sleeping bag but on top of my bed instead of the floor. Mama was next to me.

“Where’s Billy, Mama?” The apartment was so silent. I was now used to the sound of Billy’s snoring and Good Morning America.

“Billy is gone,” Mama yawned, “It’s early. Go back to sleep.” I kicked out of the sleeping bag. Brownie met me in the hallway and leaned against my ankles. I scooped him up and walked to the living room where there was a hole the size of Billy’s hand on one wall and another the size of the green lamp with the mustard yellow owl painted on it. Chunks of lamp lay in the carpet. I backed away, not taking my eyes off the walls as I entered the kitchen. I poured one bowl of Friskies and one bowl of Cheerios—neither with milk. I sat at the bar in the green vinyl swivel chair. The wind kicked up the orange curtains. The balcony sliding door was open.

I walked to the stack of Golden Books on the orange crate and bridged them slowly all the way to the couch, walked across couch and then threw down a few books for me to land on once I made the short jump towards the balcony. I smiled as goofy as Mama did when Billy bought us ice cream that first time. The balcony concrete was morning cold.  The neighbor’s balcony was empty except for two dead plants and a rusted bbq grill. I stuck my face between the rot iron bars to try to see three stories below. 

There on the ground was our TV, smashed against the concrete, almost on the grass where the palm trees were planted by the street. Its TV insides of wires and glass and dirty gray plastic were spread outward from the center like guts. The TV look so empty and lifeless and scary. Could that be the same TV that sang "everything's a okay" at the beginning of Sesame Street? The same TV that told me it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood? One of the stairwell kids rode up in flip-flops on his Big Wheel.

“Hey Theresa!" The boy squinted up at me. "Your Mama, crazy or what? My dad says she threw the TV out the window early this morning. How you gonna watch Saturday morning cartoons?”

“She threw it out the window?” I asked, suddenly chilled though the sun was rising and drying up all the dew, and sucking the moisture out of the air.

“At least it was only black and white,” said the boy, “maybe you guys will get color now.” He shrugged and rode off.
I pulled my head out from between the bars and kicked too hard at the Ugly Duckling book under my left foot. It slipped under the bars and landed aside the broken TV.
“Theresa! Get in here,” Mama called. I started making a path back to the kitchen with the books, but Mama picked me up half way across the living room.
“I accidentally dropped my book, Mama. Can I—Can I go get it when I put shoes on?” I asked softly into her ear.
“I accidentally dropped the TV,” Mama laughed, "I'll run down and get your book while you get ready to take a bath." Mama laughed all the way down the stairs.

Later in the afternoon, Grandpa came over to put a new lock on the door and to patch the holes with spackle. Mama vacuumed up little bits of wall and lamp. Uncle Lalo came over with some cousins and a used color TV that was bigger than the old one and in its own wooden box so that the top part could be used as a table.  The cousins set it up and twisted the rabbit ears back and forth every couple of minutes for what seemed like forever. After the TV picture finally came in okay,  The cousins and I chased the ice cream truck with the stairwell kids, while Mama served Grandpa and Uncle Lalo cold Olympia beers. Mama stretched out on the couch and let her feet dangle over the side and ate the ice cream sandwich the cousins bought for her.

When everyone was gone, Mama got out her rubber gloves, a bucket and some Pinesol and dropped me in front of the new used TV to watch Sesame Street with my Golden Books and Patches the horse, while she cleaned up the kitchen.  Brownie jumped on top of the TV and went to sleep, his tail curling across the screen below him.  When my show was over, I turned off the brand new used TV and watched as its picture shrank into a tiny little ball and disappeared.


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